A woman from Chile's indigenous Mapuche people was chosen Sunday to lead the drafting of the country's new constitution, in a bid to spread power more equitably in the South American nation.
The new constitution will replace the one inherited from Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, blamed for the social inequalities that sparked deadly protests in 2019.
In a vote in Santiago delayed by clashes between protesters and police, academic Elisa Loncon was elected head of a new 155-member body charged with writing the new text, which is meant to pry power from the hands of the country's elite.
The 58-year-old independent from the majority Mapuche people got 96 votes out of 155.
"This agreement will transform Chile," Loncon said on stage, where she held up a Mapuche flag.
She said the constitutional convention installed on Sunday would be representative of Chile's diversity.
"It is a dream of our ancestors and this dream has come true. It is possible, brothers and sisters, to re-found this Chile, to establish a relationship between the Mapuche people... and all the nations that make up this country," she said.
Chilean President Sebastien Pinera wished Loncon "wisdom, prudence and strength" in pushing for the new constitution.
Jaime Bassa, a constitutional lawyer elected the convention's vice-president, said its members had the difficult task of healing "wounds that arose from the social process that brought us here" after the 2019 protests.
Election official Carmen Gloria Valladares read out, one-by-one, the names of the 155 members elected to the constitutional convention in May.
They included lawyers, teachers, a homemaker, scientists, social workers and journalists. Half are women.
The new body's delegates were sworn in at a ceremony for the historic process, which was held up when protesters and a special police unit clashed in streets nearby.
After the meeting opened with the singing of the national anthem, the sound of protesters' whistles and shouts of "No more repression!" could be heard.
When some demonstrators approached Valladares's table, sharply raising tensions, she temporarily suspended the session.
"We want to have a celebration of democracy, not a problem," she said.
- 'A country for all' -
There were also demonstrations around the Plaza Italia, the epicenter of the social justice protests that rocked Chile in October 2019 and led ultimately to the decision in May to create the new body that would replace the constitution written during Pinochet's dictatorship (1973-1990).
That earlier document, though amended in the 30 years of Chilean democracy, was widely unpopular. It was viewed as a source of social inequality in a country ranked as one of the most unequal among advanced economies.
Some 5,000 people gathered Sunday in the Plaza Italia.
"I greatly hope that this process will help us build a country for all," 47-year-old bank employee Carolina Vergara told AFP.
The diversity of the Constitutional Convention's 155 members -- including many left-leaning independents with no experience in public office, and with no single group holding veto power -- could make compromise and concessions unavoidable.
But this same diversity has fueled concerns in some that the group may get bogged down in endless debate and find itself unable to satisfy people's expectations.
Yet others remain hopeful.
For the first time, "The entire country is represented, and they are going to sit down to talk -- to talk about the country we want," Felipe Berrios, an influential Jesuit priest, told AFP.
The convention will have nine months -- with a single three-month extension possible -- to complete its work.
The resulting document will then be submitted to ratification in a national plebiscite, with all citizens required to vote.